Wednesday, 3 August 2016

The Storm from Paradise

Walter Benjamin was one of the great critical writers of the twentieth century.  Sympathetic to the Frankfurt School writers such as Theodor Adorno, but never fully affiliated to the Institut fur Sozialforschung, Benjamin lived the perilous life of a jobbing man of letters in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, and then, as the Nazis rose to power, in France.  Scholar of German drama, connoisseur of Baudelaire, early film critic, perhaps the greatest analyst we have of urban dynamics, it's hard to categorise him and his work, which partakes of philosophy, sociology, literary criticism, literary journalism, occasionally infused by a streak of Jewish messianism.

That prophetic tone and angle is famously visible in his strange and brilliant essay 'On the Concept of History', published originally in 1940.  Like Adorno, his friend, admirer and also at times severe critic, Benjamin was influenced in his writing by Nietzsche's aphoristic style, and the 'theses' that make up 'On the Concept of History' are no ordinary arguments or statements of a systematic philosophy.  But they summon up unforgettable images and metaphors for the effort to think historically in the bad new times, none more famous than that of the 'Angelus Novus', the Angel of History.

The Storyteller, a new volume of Benjamin's creative work, joins recent volumes of autobiography, and Lecia Rosenthal's wonderful collection of his radio journalism, Radio Benjamin.  This comes from the Verso website, so often a resource of radical news and ideas.

The Storm Blowing from Paradise: Walter Benjamin and Klee's Angelus Novus



Monday, 18 July 2016

The tumbrils, the tumbrils - The Revolution in the Revolution

Last Thursday was Bastille Day, le quatorze juillet, the anniversary of the storming by an angry crowd of the Bastille prison fortress in 1789, and one of the landmark dates of the Great Revolution.  I did not blog on that day, partly because in Nice a peaceful crowd watching a fireworks display was attacked by a man driving a truck, who scythed his way along the Promenade des Anglais, killing 84 people and injuring 200.  This assault has been 'claimed' by ISIS, though the exact character of the assailant, and his mental state, so far as they are ascertainable to us yet, suggest someone in great mental and psychological distress and disorder rather than a focused ideologue.  This has not stopped George Hook and other would-be armchair warriors in the defence of 'our values', and 'our civilization' abusing the platform of the media to declare that 'we' are fighting a 'war' against 'Islam', and, briefly tearing their eyes away from Victor comic and the collected speeches of Churchill, to mispronounce the names of the hapless President of the Republic and of the French national anthem, and to berate 'liberals' who cannot recognise the reality of struggle today.

The real Revolution, about which such fools know almost nothing beyond sentimental Dickensian clich├ęs, was much more interesting.  And indeed, it must be noted that by a sweet irony of history, the Bastille was by the time of its capture empty of all but seven of its prisoners.  Most notably, the Marquis de Sade had been removed from the prison only ten days earlier - a writer in whose work the Enlightenment is both exemplified and subverted (as Adorno and Horkheimer realised in their great critique of the instrumentalisation of reason).  That proximity of Sade should make us think carefully about the Revolution, and about the invocation of liberty, equality and fraternity now in reaction to attacks such as that at Nice.   The fact is that the Revolution is too great to contain in simplistic pseudo-historical maxims, and any unreflective mobilization of its legacies is the prerogative of dunces.

Nowhere is this more the case than in France itself, where interpretation of the Revolution has been a touchstone of intellectual and political life from Michelet to Furet.  The fact is that the modern historiographic orthodoxy in France about the 1789-1804 period has been anti-republican and counter-revolutionary since at least the 1970s.  But a few beacons still shine for the radical reading of the Revolution.

Of these, none has given me greater pleasure in recent years than Eric Hazan, the Parisian publisher, urbanist, Marxist and historian, whose Invention of Paris sits in my bag every time I visit the city.  This wonderful book, steeped in the political, literary, planning and architectural history of Paris, is written with a mix of steel, erudition and grace worthy of some of his heroes - Balzac, Baudelaire, Benjamin - and it is one of those books that makes me smile in public at the sheer delight of reading.  More recently, Hazan has published a popular history of the Revolution, and a short history of the barricade as a revolutionary technique.   Here he is - appropriately on the Jacobin website - on the necessity of the Revolution.

Yes, the French Revolution Was Necessary

And here is Jonah Walters, giving a useful sketch of the Revolution through a series of questions:

A Guide to the French Revolution


Many of the greatest intellectuals and writers of Europe were moved by and admired the Revolution.  Not only Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hazlitt and  Paine, Tone and Drennan, but also Kant and Hegel.  Those who think of the latter only as the theoretical laureate of the Prussian state need to re-examine some of his earlier work, the Jena lectures of 1805-1806.  

Hegel on Bastille Day





Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Apotheosis of Moral Mediocrity - Elie Wiesel

Obituary pages in 'liberal' newspapers have recently been filled with sonorous tributes to Elie Wiesel, author of Night, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who died on July 2 last.  Wiesel, of Romanian-Jewish background, was once described by the LA Times as 'the most important Jew in America'.  He contributed to the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.   His Nobel citation in 1986 described him as a 'messenger to mankind', and noted his 'practical work in the cause of peace'.

Unfortunately, Wiesel's work in one of the fields closest to him was not particularly peaceful, or humane.  He disavowed the task of holding Israel to account for its crimes of war and occupation.  In fact he was a crucial figure in  placing the Holocaust as a central feature of American cultural-political life (as documented by Peter Novick), and in mobilising and instrumentalising the Holocaust legacy in the defence of Israel.  This was a task he continued to carry out right up to Israel's most recent murderous bombardment and re-invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2014.  

Wiesel's passing is not worth mourning.  He has been one of the great hypocrites of recent times.

Some reading of a somewhat more bracing kind than is to be found in the bland mainstream:

Sara Roy, a Jewish scholar and the child of Holocaust survivors, is one of the great experts on the history of the Gaza Strip

A Response to Elie Wiesel


Corey Robin, an American-Jewish political theorist and expert on the radical right: 

My Resistance to Elie Wiesel


David Shasha, a Brooklyn-based scholar of Sephardic history, on Wiesel and Primo Levi:

Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi: A study in contrasts


And Alex Cockburn's tremendous slash-and-burn critique of Wiesel, from 2006:

Truth and Fiction in Elie Wiesel’s “Night”




Saturday, 2 July 2016

Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietman - we've all been there: Michael Herr 1940 - 2016

When I was about 18, I was at boarding school  on Canada's Pacific coast.   It was a highly privileged experience - a small school of about 200 kids, located deep in the great Douglas Fir and redwood rainforests of southern Vancouver Island, on its own small bay, with its own dock, with views down to the Cascades, and with much if not most of the teaching staff living in situ also.  Students from around 60 countries attended.   Classes, held in common rooms or 'dayrooms', were tiny, often under 10 people.  'Freedom' was considerable, and felt real - you could take a tent and disappear off into the forest, or, if you were a driver or had a friend with a license, you could check out a college van and head off into Victoria or elsewhere.

Like all schools, like boarding schools elsewhere, this school was a tremendous laboratory for young people making themselves, and, shy kid though I was, I did this too.  I thought I wanted to be a climber, so I scrambled up cliffs, got stuck, got the shakes, and then tried again.  I suddenly realised that books were not just interesting to me, but were cool and that knowing about them could make the reader cool, too.  Perhaps.  I moved from reading Tolkien to reading Joseph Conrad.  I'd been given a recording of the farewell concert of The Band, just before I headed to this school, and listening to The Last Waltz, borrowing metal and prog rock and New York art-punk music from friends and roommates transformed my sense of music.   And I read Dispatches.

Dispatches has to be one of the great books about war.  Assembled by Michael Herr from his musings and discussion pieces for Esquire and Rolling Stone, it was published in 1977, nearly a decade after Herr had left Vietnam.  It offers no real narrative, it does not push a clear political message or position on American involvement in Indochina, but it gives an extraordinary sense of a particular experience of the American side of the war.  As much a piece of New Journalism (or even gonzo) as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dispatches has since soaked into so many realms of Anglophone popular and high culture as to be a kind of ur-text, Herr a Foucauldian 'founder of discursivity'.   Every Hollywood image of the cynical hack in the Third World, of the world-weary grunt, of the loopy nerdy staff officer or idiot political spokesman, surely owes a debt to Dispatches.   The fiction of Robert Stone and Don DeLillo might not have been possible without Herr's book.  And the language, too:  Dispatches is surely one of the great conduits of black American street-talk, or jive, into English-speaking culture generally.  The after-effects of Herr's book leach on into films - those of Oliver Stone, or Walter Hill, or Martin Scorsese, or Michael Mann, or Katherine Bigelow.   But few of them have the courage not to lapse back into the moralism or the feeble humanism of which they purport to be the excoriating critiques.  Herr does not make this mistake - he's as clear about the bliss of war as he is about the terror, and he reminds us that war goes on happening because enough people out there enjoy it and think it's useful. 

Herr never wrote such a fine book again.  What need, after such a masterpiece?   I read just yesterday, on the webpages of The Paris Review, that he has died at the age of 76.   Latterly, it seems, he was uncertain as to the value of the work he gave to the world, and became reclusive.  This makes me sad: this was a great writer, who makes a lot of our preening Booker- or Pulitzer- or Goncourt-winning literary egomaniacs nowadays look like fools and pygmies.  I know I'll be reading Dispatches long after I've forgotten about the Zadie Smiths and the Colm Toibins and the Michel Houellbecqs.

Here is the Paris Review obituary:

In Memoriam: Michael Herr, 1940–2016


Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Conditions for Palestinian Scholars in the West Bank and Israel - A Report Back by David Lloyd

David Lloyd has been mentioned several times on this blog.  He is one of Ireland's most innovative and powerful critics.   Scholar of James Clarence Mangan, aesthetic theorist, expert on postcolonialism and subaltern history, capable of ranging from the visceral politics of hungerstrike and famine to the rigours of Kant's Critiques, Lloyd has few peers amongst Irish intellectuals.

In recent years he has put this formidable critical capital in the service of the campaign for the academic boycott of Israeli universities.  He has been a crucial figure in the effort to get a resolution on boycott passed at the annual conventions of the huge and prestigious Modern Language Association, the major professional association of American literature academics.  As a professor at the University of California, he has been working at the very eye of the storm in this debate, to which he has committed himself with a combination of intellectual rigour and political steel very rare in contemporary academia. 

Professor Lloyd has just led a MLA group to Israel and the West Bank, to learn about conditions for Palestinian scholars there at first hand.  Next Tuesday, he will give a talk on his experiences there, and on the campaign more generally, at Trinity College Dublin.  The talk is entitled 'Conditions for Palestinian Scholars in Israel and the West Bank - A Report Back', and it's co-hosted by Academics for Palestine (the group of Irish academics formed in February 2014 to argue for the academic boycott) and the Irish School of Ecumenics.

Professor Lloyd's talk takes place on Tuesday June 28, at 7pm at the Irish School of Ecumenics. The ISE is part of TCD, and it's located at the southeastern end of the campus, next to the Zoology Building.  Here are some helpful directions: Please click here to view our Dublin location on google maps, this also allows you to get driving/walking directions.

Here is the campus map, with the ISE marked on it:

Here is a link to the Academics for Palestine notice about the talk, from the AfP website:

Everybody and anybody is welcome to come to this talk.  It's not for academics only!


Friday, 20 May 2016

Revolution from the Margins - Saluting Toussaint L'Ouverture

We're just under two months away from July 14, the official anniversary date of the French Revolution.  I honour the Revolution, with all its dialectical complexity.  As with most revolutions - even that Irish 'revolution' which we've been marking in this country recently - it was characterised by a bewildering variety of actions, sentiments, ideas, political theories and cultural forms. 

The French Revolution, and the radical Enlightenment which preceded it and which fed also into the American Revolution, produced echoes in many places, including Ireland.  But perhaps most notable and tumultuous of those echoes, or indeed parallel revolutions - a revolution within or at the edge of the Revolution - was the great San Domingo slave uprising, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture.  The most famous history of the slave revolt is CLR James's masterpiece, The Black Jacobins, a great text of 'postcolonialism' written long before Edward Said or Gayatri Spivak were even heard of.  Today is Toussaint's birthday, and it's marked by Verso with an excerpt from a volume of his writings, which I post here:

Happy Birthday Toussaint L'Ouverture



Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Notes on Anti-Semitism

The charge of 'anti-Semitism', the fear of being labelled 'anti-Semitic', the fear of somehow giving comfort to fascism and racism - these are the materials from which the current Israeli and Zionist push-back against the rising success and prominence of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (approaching its 49th year) is made. 

To be labelled anti-Semitic - I've had it done to me, in the pages of the Irish Times, and it's not much fun - is, in the wake of the Holocaust, to be tarred with a very unpleasant, and potentially very dangerous, brush.  It's to be put beyond acceptable debate or discussion or conversation; to be seen as racist; to be seen as denying the humanity of the Jewish people, and so on.   For anyone who wishes to take part in public discussion, who has an interest in the values traditionally associated with liberal Western culture and politics since the Enlightenment, such a label is deeply damaging and corrosive.  In Ireland, where the public and political culture is relatively sympathetic to Palestinian rights and where there is not a Zionist lobby of any significance, such a label is ugly and harmful.  In the United States, Britain or France, such a smear can destroy careers and shred reputations.

What these struggles over language, rhetoric and terminology represent is the sense that, in Foucault's famous words, 'discourse is the power to be seized', that the way that understanding of the contest between Zionism and Israel, on the one hand, and the movements for Palestinian liberation, on the other, is framed is crucial to the way that contest will take shape.  So, of course, we see the term 'anti-Semitism' thrown around discussions of Israel and of Zionism on an all-too regular basis.  Yet the very power of the charge of anti-Semitism has led to its overuse, and to the significant evacuation of much precision from the term.  If the activities of Einsatzrgruppen in the Ukraine in the summer of 1941 are held to be the measure of the position of a handful of people manning a protest outside an Israeli Embassy in a European capital, and vice versa, then, clearly, we're on very confused moral (not to mention historical or philosophical) terrain.
Nevertheless, this has not stopped Israeli and Zionist attempts precisely to equate 'anti-Zionism' (opposition to and critique of a political ideology which underpins the activities of a state) with 'anti-Semitism' (essentialising hostility to all Jews everywhere merely for the alleged sin of being Jewish).  The most recent iteration of this in the Anglophone world has been the effort in Britain to damage the Labour Party and particularly the left of the Labour Party, by attacking Ken Livingstone, and by extension Jeremy Corbyn, for their 'anti-Zionism'.

Here are three articles to help us negotiate this morass, taken from the Verso website:

Yitzhak Laor is an Israeli writer and radical.  His essay 'Tears of Zion', published in the New Left Review some years ago, is a devastating attack on the 'liberal' Israeli 'left', as embodied in persons such as the novelists Amos Oz and David Grossman, beloved of the Irish Times and the Dalkey Book Festival.  Here he is on the Corbyn/Livingstone affair:

Corbyn and Israel: Concept and Reality

Tariq Ali, still streetfighting and still correct:

And Alain Badiou, redoubtable French philosopher of the radical Left: